Ferrari had a profound effect on Sunday’s Monaco Grand Prix – but not in the way anyone had envisaged when previously talking up the need for Maranello to pull up their red socks and prevent a sixth-straight Mercedes clean sweep.
The only predictable feature of Ferrari’s intrusion last weekend was another strategic cock-up. But, no one would have guessed that the decision not to send Charles Leclerc out for another run in Q1 would have a knock-on effect capable of making this race incredibly tense.
You had to feel sorry for Leclerc; interviewed and profiled in every media outlet worthy of the name; the hometown boy carrying the hopes of the Principality through the same streets used by his school bus only a decade ago. And here he is, dumped down the grid for a race where overtaking is very difficult – but not impossible.
Fair play to Leclerc for giving it a go, even if such a claustrophobic environment would eventually do for a free spirit carried away by the moment. Had he not tagged the barrier at La Rascasse and subsequently deposited pieces of Ferrari floor all over the place, this race would probably have delivered another Mercedes one-two, with not much else to say after 103 minutes of running.
As pit stops followed the safety car appearance as surely as night follows day, Mercedes chose the softer tyre for reasons that seemed valid at the time (better to cope with the threat of rain; the hard would have been tricky at the restart if the pursuing Ferrari and Red Bull went on the soft). It wasn’t long before Hamilton’s increasingly urgent radio messages told the world that the second half of this race was going to be interesting. Hamilton v Verstappen; it was a contest everyone has been waiting for, including you suspected, Max himself.
Even when watching the fascinating game of cat and mouse, it was impossible to not to think that the predictable moaners would be warming up with complaints about the race being boring simply because Verstappen could not get by a Mercedes driver clearly in trouble and nursing his tyres.
That’s not what Monaco is about. You wouldn’t want a season full of tracks like this but the unique challenges presented by the narrow streets help make the race such a special, oddball event. And one with 26 points on offer at the end of it.
One of the few regrets was not seeing Verstappen receive due reward by appearing on the podium thanks the 5-second penalty demoting the Red Bull to P4. The collision with Bottas in the pit lane was hardly his fault (even though the Stewards decided he had the ‘opportunity to avoid contact’. Which is a bit like saying ‘if Verstappen hadn’t been there, the incident wouldn’t have happened’). Once the car hits the ground, a driver is not going to employ ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ before pulling out – not that he could see much in those mirrors in any case.
The team, arguably, should have received the penalty because it was they who gave the all clear. Saying that, I’ve seen a suggestion that the more ruthless teams would be prepared to take such a hit if it meant their man gaining an advantage at a circuit where track position is everything.
Fortunately, none of that detracted from a supreme performance by Hamilton under immense pressure. It was fitting that Lewis should remove his replica helmet at the finish and indicate the reference to Niki Lauda. For a legend who often won races, not by being the fastest but by applying cool calm and logic, this was a victory he would have thoroughly appreciated.
Niki will be sorely missed for many reasons. Not least, a likely response to claims of ‘boring’ that would have been typically precise and scarcely polite.